It’s a quiet day today since The Moustache of Wisdom and Mr. Kristof are off. In “The Ebola Scare” The Putz gurgles that sometimes incompetence can be a lot more frightening than any conspiracy theory. MoDo has been watching TV again. In “An Affair to Remember, Differently” she squeals that infidelity is as fascinating as ever, just ask the co-creator of Showtime’s “The Affair.” Mr. Bruni, in “The Virus of Cynicism,” says Ebola is Obama’s presidency — and the efficacy of government — in a petri dish. Here’s The Putz:
I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but I did: While flying from D.C. to Dallas last week, just after the news came out that an Ebola-infected nurse had been allowed to fly while running a fever, I went back and read the opening pages of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
In King’s epic, perhaps his finest, a superflu with a 99.4 percent fatality rate accidentally escapes from a desert laboratory and lays waste to civilization. King being King, supernatural developments ensue for the survivors. But the book is at its most terrifying in the unraveling with which it opens, when the only bogeyman that matters is a hacking cough that spreads and spreads and spreads.
To reread these pages now — in a time of national, well, not panic but least disquiet over the handling of Ebola inside our borders — is to be struck both by parallels and by crucial differences between the scenario King conjured and what we fear today.
The parallels lie, not surprisingly, in the realm of official incompetence. King’s superflu escapes because various computerized safeguards fail; it spreads because of interagency chaos in chasing down patient zero; it compromises a C.D.C. facility whose safeguards turn out to be insufficient. The chaos swirling around the Dallas Ebola infections has followed this kind of pattern: the patient sent home undiagnosed; the unprepared hospital and the infected nurses; the C.D.C.’s weird slowness in taking over; the confident governmental assurances giving way to blame-shifting, double talk and the appointment of a political hack as Ebola princeps … er … sultan … er, czar.
But the differences are interesting as well. King’s novel, infused with 1970s-era paranoia, imagines a government that blunders constantly but is also malignantly competent — brilliant enough to design a superflu capable of killing 99 percent of humanity, tyrannical enough to suppress media reports with martial law and murder, ruthless enough to swiftly spread the superflu behind the Iron Curtain to make sure our enemies go down with us.
This part of the novel’s vision is of a piece with all of modern conspiracy culture, which requires a certain level of omnicompetence to sustain its theories about covered-up alien landings or 9/11 inside jobs.
But conspiracy culture, while always resilient, has had a tough go of it of late. From the Iraq war to Hurricane Katrina and various Obama-era debacles, the public has been steadily conditioned to fear government incompetence much more than it fears secret conspiracies against the public good. Instead of the Bilderbergers and the Trilateralists and the cigarette-smoking man, it’s Mike “heckuva job” Brown and George “slam dunk” Tenet and whoever was allegedly in charge of the V.A. hospital system who haunt our collective unconscious these days. People still indulge the occasional “House of Cards”-style fantasy of all-powerful political puppetmasters, but what actually scares us is the idea of the Ebola epidemic being managed by the gang from “Veep.”
I suspect that’s part of why Obama-era scandals that may actually involve secret government machinations — from the N.S.A. revelations to the harassment of journalists and the politicized overreach of Lois Lerner’s I.R.S. division — haven’t fixed themselves in the public imagination, at least among people who don’t have an explicit ideological or political interest at stake. Wisely or not, Americans have trouble imagining the White House that gave us the HealthCare.gov rollout micromanaging partisan I.R.S. chicanery, or the national security bureaucracy that couldn’t see 9/11 or the Islamic State coming doing anything all that Machiavellian with a firehose’s worth of online data.
Likewise with Ebola: Of course you can find wild conspiracy theories, but the idea of a successful government cover-up — secret body bags, muzzled journalists — is basically laughable. Instead, the baseline anxiety is all about bureaucratic incompetence exacerbated by insouciance, with conservatives fearing that a liberal administration won’t be willing to go far enough — in terms of travel restrictions and quarantines — to effectively contain the disease’s spread.
Because plausible arguments have been offered for and against a travel ban, the administration’s actual response will be an interesting case study. As much as the authorities have fouled up so far, we’ve only had a few infections. If the White House continues to resist calls for more dramatic measures, and we manage to contain Ebola domestically, then the president and his appointees will look more competent and levelheaded than their critics — a result that’s all too rare these days.
Given the track record, however, it’s easy to imagine somewhat less fortunate results, and travel restrictions increasingly seem like an appropriate hedge against ongoing domestic incompetence.
But it would be welcome, and then some, to watch a competent strategy unfold that rendered that opinion obsolete.
And then, our faith in government’s effectiveness partially restored, we can all get back to worrying about what’s being secretly cooked up in the Nevada desert.
Faith in government effectiveness will only be possible after all of the current crop of Republicans have been voted out of office. Next up we have MoDo’s fizzing:
We live in a world awash in unreliable narrators.
Officials at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital were unreliable narrators on Ebola. The Internet is bristling with unreliable narrators who prefer their takes to the truth. The unsavory husband and wife in the thriller “Gone Girl” are such chillingly unreliable narrators that they easily beat out the undead unreliable narrator, Dracula, at the box office. And let’s not even start on Fox News.
So now comes the riveting “Rashomon” in Montauk, Showtime’s “The Affair,” with Ruth Wilson and Dominic West offering alternating he recalls-she recalls versions of the same story in each show, as they get swept up in sexual infidelity and a serious crime during a shimmering summer.
I went to Brooklyn to talk to West — the British actor who played the raffish Baltimore detective Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire” on HBO — and the show’s co-creator, Sarah Treem, as they shot scenes at a school there.
West’s character, Noah, is a novelist and teacher who lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with his wife, played by Maura Tierney, and four kids. He’s happily married but feeling insecure about the lackluster performance of his first novel. It gets worse when his wife giggles at his facial expression during lovemaking, and he’s taunted by his arrogant father-in-law, a famous fiction writer who owns the oceanfront mansion in the Hamptons where the family is spending the summer.
When West meets Wilson’s comely Alison, a diner waitress and Montauk native who is also married to someone she loves (Joshua Jackson) and also feeling uncertain and anxious, the chase is on.
But who’s chasing whom? In West’s memory, Alison is sultry and curvy, wearing sexy outfits and seducing him. In Alison’s version, she’s wan and withdrawn, still mourning the drowning death of her small son and dubious about Noah’s aggressive blandishments.
Treem, a playwright and “House of Cards” writer, created “The Affair” with Hagai Levi, with whom she also worked on HBO’s “In Treatment.”
Treem said the new show uses sex to illustrate that the characters are “trying to connect and they fail at it all the time. I think we have a lot of sex in this show, but in terms of the sex where they’re actually unified, that happens very rarely.”
Treem is a newlywed. In June, she married Jay Carson, a former campaign spokesman for Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton who is a producer on “House of Cards” and the father of Treem’s nearly 2-year-old son. Yet the brainy, alluring 34-year-old has an intriguingly jaded philosophy of romance.
“I have this belief that, in all relationships, there’s this long erotic moment that happens at the beginning of the relationship,” she said. “It’s like the pole of a tetherball court, and then everything else is just basically that damn ball going around, winding and unwinding around that one erotic moment, and you’re trying to always get back to that incredible moment of connection with somebody, and it’s gone forever.”
She said they put up a quote by the poet Robert Hass in the writers’ room, the final line of a passage where he describes the sensation of making love to a woman: “I felt a violent wonder at her presence like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat, muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her. Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.”
I tell her that Carson asked me if he should be worried, given how knowingly his wife writes about infidelity.
She laughed, replying, “I wrote the show when I was still single at 31, so at that point in your life you see a lot of infidelity. You have married men coming on to you. You see your friends already in affairs. From my perspective at that point, infidelity was all over the place. Now, being married, I would like my marriage to work. I love him, and I want to be faithful to him, and I want him to be faithful to me.” But, she adds matter-of-factly, “you probably have a 20 percent chance, maybe a 10 percent chance, of actually getting through an entire marriage with no infidelity.”
When I ask her if she thinks that men are more prone to cheat, she instantly replies: “Yes, I do.”
West agrees that the show may be “a shag-a-thon,” as he merrily put it, but its real subject is meant to be marriage.
“When you have four kids, inevitably your sex life suffers,” said West, himself a father of four. “But, for me, in my 20s and 30s, the stakes are much higher if you’re unfaithful. I feel, as you get older, the stakes get a lot lower. I don’t think infidelity would bother either me or my wife so much as if anything happened to our children, for instance. It ceases to be the primary anxiety.”
When I mentioned that it was interesting how, in Noah’s remembrance, Alison has fuller breasts, West’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Does she?” he said, laughing. “Is that right? Well spotted.”
The actor said that, after playing Iago and the English serial killer Fred West, he yearned for a more heroic role.
“I was really keen to play a good guy,” he said, with a wry smile. “So this is the good guy I’m playing — a cheating husband.”
And now here’s Mr. Bruni:
We have no clue at this point how far Ebola could spread in the United States — and no reason for panic.
But one dimension of the disease’s toll is clear. It’s ravaging Americans’ already tenuous faith in the competence of our government and its bureaucracies.
Before President Obama’s election, we had Iraq, Katrina and the meltdown of banks supposedly under Washington’s watch. Since he came along to tidy things up, we’ve had the staggeringly messy rollout of Obamacare, the damnable negligence of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the baffling somnambulism of the Secret Service.
Now this. Although months of a raging Ebola epidemic in West Africa gave the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sufficient warning and ample time to get ready for any cases here, it was caught flat-footed, as its director, Tom Frieden, is being forced bit by bit to acknowledge. Weeks ago he assured us: “We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country.” Over recent days he updated that assessment, saying that “in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight,” federal officials could and should have done more at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
President Obama made his own assurances and then corrections. He said back in mid-September that “in the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.”
Well, we weren’t wholly prepared, and the event was never unlikely: This country is a potent magnet for travelers, with a proudly (and rightly) open posture toward the world. People stream in all the time. And a federally funded study published in early September calculated a nearly 20 percent “probability of Ebola virus disease case importation” within three weeks. Within four, Thomas Duncan, the Liberian man who was initially (and inexplicably) turned away from the Dallas hospital, was at last admitted and treated for Ebola.
After that screw-up by hospital officials, Frieden told us that the right protocols were in place. But it now appears that Duncan wasn’t immediately put in isolation; that nurses attending to him were confused about the proper use of protective garb; and that the clothing they wore may have left bits of skin exposed.
We’ve learned of the C.D.C.’s bizarrely permissive attitude toward the hospital workers who came in contact with Duncan or his lab samples. While they should have been on restricted movement, one took flights — after first calling the C.D.C. for a green light — from Texas to Ohio and back. Another boarded a cruise ship. By Monday, will we find out about a C.D.C.-approved game of Twister in the hospital staff room?
This is bad, not because it means that a large number of Americans are at risk of infection but because it confirms the sloppiness of the very institutions in which we place the most trust. It’s spreading the virus of cynicism.
And the C.D.C.’s missteps have much different implications from the errors made by the Secret Service and by Veterans Affairs. Individual Americans don’t fear that the Secret Service’s lapses will endanger them personally, and many of them aren’t directly affected by the wrongdoing of hospitals for veterans. But they can imagine themselves on one of those flights or in some other closed space with an infected person. They feel vulnerable.
Because the Ebola response deepens doubt about the current government, it almost certainly hurts incumbents in the midterm elections and favors change. That’s unhappy news for Democrats as they fight to retain control of the Senate, and by the end of last week, they were spooked. I heard that not only in my conversations with party strategists but also in the statements of Democratic candidates themselves.
Bruce Brayley, locked in a tight Senate race in Iowa, publicly upbraided the Obama administration for what he characterized as a sluggish response. Al Franken, running for re-election in Minnesota, said there should at least be serious consideration of the sorts of flight restrictions that Obama has dismissed. Even Jay Carney, the president’s former spokesman, mentioned such restrictions as potentially wise policy.
Rationally or not, this is one of those rare moments when Americans who typically tune out so much of what leaders say are paying rapt attention, and Obama’s style of communication hasn’t risen fully to the occasion. Even as he canceled campaign appearances and created a position — Ebola czar — that we were previously told wasn’t necessary, he spoke with that odd dispassion of his, that maddening distance.
About the ban, he said, “I don’t have a philosophical objection necessarily.” About the czar, he said that it might be good to have a person “to make sure that we’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s going forward.” He’s talking theory and calligraphy while Americans are focused on blood, sweat and tears.
Ebola is his presidency in a petri dish. It’s an example already of his tendency to talk too loosely at the outset of things, so that his words come back to haunt him. There was the doctor you could keep under his health plan until, well, you couldn’t. There was the red line for Syria that he didn’t have to draw and later erased.
With Ebola, he said almost two weeks ago that “we’re doing everything that we can” with an “all-hands-on-deck approach.” But on Wednesday and Thursday he announced that there were additional hands to be put on deck and that we could and would do more. The shift fit his pattern: not getting worked up in the early stages, rallying in the later ones.
It’s more understandable in this case than in others, because when it comes to statements about public health, the line between adequately expressed concern and a license for hysteria is thin and not easily determined. Still, he has to make Americans feel that he understands their alarm, no matter how irrational he deems it, and that they’re being leveled with, not talked down to, not handled. And he has a ways to go.
“If you were his parent, you’d want to shake him,” said one Democratic strategist, who questioned where Obama’s passion was and whether, even this deep into his presidency, he appreciated one of the office’s most vital functions: deploying language, bearing, symbols and ceremony to endow Americans with confidence in who’s leading them and in how they’re being led.
Right now in this country there’s a crisis of confidence, and of competence, and that’s the fertile ground in which the Ebola terror flowers. That’s the backdrop for whatever steps Obama and Frieden take from here. With the right ones, they can go a long way toward calming people who are anxious not just about Ebola but about America. I don’t even want to think about the wrong ones.